North Korea thinks it over Clinton initiative: Four-way talks could end, finally, the 1950s war.


BILATERAL TALKS with North Korea (which the United States pursues while saying it won't) in Berlin this weekend concern Pyongyang's alarming development and sales of missiles. But they could elicit a response to the joint U.S.-South Korean proposal to end the Korean War by replacing its 1953 armistice with a peace treaty.

The posture has been that Pyongyang wants to stiff South Korea by negotiating solely with the U.S. Pyongyang's incursions into the Demilitarized Zone are presumably aimed at forcing the U.S. to talk on North Korean terms. Meanwhile, growing hunger in North Korea and the arrival of a ship with Western rice shows the urgency of ending the North's isolation.

The U.S. posture is that the two Koreas have much to discuss and should get on with it. The two Koreas negotiated an agreement in 1992 calling for reconciliation. In 1994, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea and the dictator Kim Il Sung of North Korea agreed to meet, but Kim Il Sung died first. The West now presumes that the army high command runs North Korea, with the role of the dictator's son, Kim Jong Il, unclear.

The initiative of President Clinton and President Kim Young Sam echoed U.S. proposals of 1988 and 1991. South Korea is newly flexible. The proposal calls for a peace conference of the four major combatants -- the two Koreas, China and the U.S. -- to end the 1950-1953 war.

North Korea denounced the idea without rejecting it. Russia seems sympathetic while demanding to be involved. Japan is supportive. Both are great powers and near neighbors with a huge stake in Korean tranquillity.

If the rulers of North Korea are sufficiently insecure, they may require a crisis prolonged. The current trials of former military dictators in South Korea can only reinforce their fear of a German-style absorption of the North by the South, which would put them in the dock.

But until there is a definitive rejection by Pyongyang, the ball sent by Presidents Clinton and Kim Young Sam is in play. A proposal to bring peace, stability and mutual recognition to the Korean peninsula is on the table. It is in the interest of all Korean people, especially families split between the North and South. It may be too good for the uneasy leaders of a hungry people to spurn.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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